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UN: Ethnic poor require better welfare assistance

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As published in the Thanh Nien News, 2 June 2011

Vietnam should continue to invest in social assistance mechanisms to tackle poverty, especially among the ethnic poor, according a United Nations independent expert on human rights and extreme poverty.

"Investing in social protection is not only crucial to lift individuals out of poverty, but also helps to protect all of those that could be affected by future economic crises or natural disasters," Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona said.

In her recent report, the independent expert acknowledged the important progress in poverty reduction that Vietnam has overseen during its two decades of rapid economic development.

The progress, she noted, is reflected in the population's increased enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights.

"However, as acknowledged by government studies, the benefits of this progress have not been equally shared, and rising inequality is a serious concern," she wrote. "This demands new strategies to ensure better protection for those who are particularly vulnerable to poverty such as women, children, older persons, internal migrant workers, persons with disabilities and, especially, ethnic minorities."

The country was recently recognized as having achieved "middle-income" status but at least 12 million Vietnamese still lived in extreme poverty in 2008, the report found.

Carmona warned that economic instability and natural disasters are slowing poverty reduction rates and posing high risks to groups that recently stepped out of poverty.

"There are great regional disparities and a large urban-rural divide," she said. "Moreover, ethnic minorities have clearly not enjoyed the same progress experienced by the country overall. If patterns are not reversed, poverty will remain a phenomenon dominated by ethnic minorities."

In her report, Carmona said that geographical isolation alone does not explain the disproportionate vulnerability to poverty among ethnic minorities who have more difficulty in accessing services, for a variety of reasons—including linguistic barriers.

"Similarly, educational disparities are caused not just by problematic physical access to schools for those minorities in remote areas, but also by linguistic barriers and economic barriers – despite initiatives to exempt them from fees, minorities are less able to afford the direct and indirect costs of education," she said.

Carmona urged the Vietnamese government to improve its data collection and ensure that poverty reduction policies distinguish between the various ethnic groups and their members.

Effective participatory channels should be increased and strengthened so poverty reduction programs can take into account the expressed needs of different minority groups, she said.

Carmona blamed additional development obstacles on the lack of cultural understanding of some state officials and the stereotyping of ethnic minorities that attributes their lack of economic progress to their culture and traditional practices.

The independent expert urged the Vietnamese government to ensure that efforts to address the poverty of minorities fully take into account their views, and preserve their unique cultures, languages, and lifestyles.

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